fb tracking

Critics of Scranton Council President Have Right to Anonymity, Public Citizen Tells Court

Sept. 21, 2007

Critics of Scranton Council President Have Right to Anonymity, Public Citizen Tells Court

Petition to Reveal Identity of Message Board Posters Is Unconstitutional

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Scranton, Pa., City Council member cannot compel disclosure of the identity of the almost 100 constituents who anonymously posted messages on a Web site critical of her leadership, Public Citizen said in a motion filed today in the Court of Common Pleas in Lackawanna County.

The plaintiff, Scranton City Council President Judy Gatelli, sought a court order requiring the message board’s hosts to reveal the identity of posters whom she accuses of defamation, civil conspiracy and “engaging in a campaign of intentional emotional distress.”

Earlier this year, Gatelli canceled a Council meeting after citing concerns about “threats” against her on www.dohertydeceit.com. The host of that site, Joseph Pilchesky, sued Gatelli for defamation, and Gatelli filed a countersuit against him for the same. She also filed a complaint against Pilchesky’s wife and approximately 90 defendants, identified by the pseudonyms used on Scranton “Political” Times Message Board, a site that links to DohertyDeceit and also is operated by Pilchesky. Although Gatelli cites 130 different messages, she doesn’t say which posting was made by which defendant.

As an elected official, Gatelli’s conduct is fair subject for comment, Public Citizen argued. Furthermore, courts have ruled that subpoenas to reveal the names of anonymous speakers can chill free speech, and those courts have upheld the right to communicate anonymously over the Internet.

“While some posts are scathing, they are scathing opinions, which are protected speech,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney representing seven defendants. “This is especially true for elected public officials. Harry Truman said it best: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ ”

The name-calling and rhetorical insults Gatelli cites in her complaint are prime examples of what courts have found to be protected speech in the context of public debate. For example, Gatelli accuses one defendant of making the following post: “Your arrogance blows me away … You didn’t just screw the adults of this town, you screwed the children of Scranton.” The complaint includes a posting that refers to Gatelli as a fat Nazi. Courts have consistently held that calling someone a Nazi is figurative speech not actionable as libel. 

Gatelli has failed to introduce any admissible evidence to establish that the facts posted were false or caused any economic damage or harm, Levy said.

“The Internet is a democratic institution in its fullest sense.” Levy said. “To deny citizens access to it because an elected official says her feelings are hurt would go a long way toward eroding the First Amendment.”

George Barron, an attorney in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is local counsel for the Doe defendants in opposing discovery. To reach Barron, visit www.attorneybarron.com.

LEARN MORE about the case.

Public Citizen has a record of defending the First Amendment rights of Internet users. LEARN MORE.